It was a successful coup – and another milestone for Union Investment’s retail property portfolio. Last October, Henrike Waldburg and her investment management team acquired the company’s first retail properties in the United States. The purchase marked the beginning of a greater involvement in retail in the United States. The acquisitions were four properties in prime retail locations in New York City, San Francisco and Philadelphia, and Henrike Waldburg believes they have enabled the company to get off to a good start in the US market. “We have two strategic goals for our retail property portfolio that go hand in hand: diversification and internationalisation,” says Henrike, who is Head of the Investment Management Retail Department at Union Investment Real Estate GmbH. She speaks English, Italian and Japanese and believes in choosing experienced and like-minded partners in the international investment business. She sees establishing and maintaining contacts with relevant key players as one of the most important parts of her job. Waldburg, who is a qualified architect, lives in Hamburg but regularly spends two to three days a week on business trips. Wherever she happens to be, she is reminded again and again that, “Our business partners can be anywhere in the world.” The personal contacts she has built up over many years both at home and abroad bear impressive testimony to that.
Waldburg and her business partner at TIAA-CREF, one of the largest pension funds in America and biggest property investment managers in the world, also knew each other well from Europe. “That was an advantage for our joint venture deal in the United States. We acquired a 49-percent stake in four good American high-street properties from TIAA and incorporated them into the portfolio of our UniImmo: Global open-ended retail real estate fund.” Waldburg intends to consider very carefully the best way of working towards the 2017 investment targets for high-street properties, retail parks and shopping centres in the United States: “We will take a very close look at all the parameters including, on the one hand, how the current American government’s political programme and the macroeconomic environment develop. On the other hand, we will keep an eye on the interest rate landscape and continue to intensively explore the US retail property market.”
Dynamic growth in the retail property portfolio
When Henrike Waldburg says “we” she usually means her retail investment management team in Hamburg. She has headed up this team since 2009 and is a strong brand ambassador for Union Investment. With its staff of six, her department represents Union Investment’s central investment expertise in the retail sector. “Commercial properties are particularly interesting,” says Waldburg, “because they are one of the most complex categories of real estate asset.”
Her investment department is an impressive success story: the retail sector currently accounts for over 30 percent of Union Investment’s global real estate assets of €28.5 billion. The portfolio currently includes 71 retail properties, 48 of which are shopping centres, in the United States and 13 other country markets in Europe. In conjunction with the investment managers responsible for the individual countries, Waldburg has bought and sold retail properties worth €7.5 billion since 2006. The dynamic growth in the retail space portfolio, which currently comprises 1.7 million square metres, guarantees Union Investment’s strategic position. Sales are also part of the investment team’s track record. “Exits,” explains the investment expert, “play a very important part in adjusting the portfolio. But we do actually buy more than we sell.”
However, not all the 23 country markets scattered around the world in which Union Investment currently invests are a good option for retail acquisitions, explains Henrike Waldburg. “In Mexico, for example, where we already have a foothold in the office segment, rents for retail space are usually in local currency, which is extremely expensive to hedge – even more so since the Trump administration took office. The sums just don’t add up.” On the other hand, in countries where there are attractive acquisition opportunities, Henrike Waldburg and her team are well known for their quick decisions and high transaction security. She knows what her business partners particularly like about Union Investment’s reputation: “We give a highly qualified evaluation ahead of a deal. Our declaration of intent is reliable, all the key issues have been sorted out. The necessary board decisions have also been taken. That means we have authority to act and can start the due diligence process straight away. That is our great strength.” The team then gets a number of external service providers on board to carry out the final due diligence so that they can wind up acquisitions and sales quickly and effectively.
The retail business is undergoing a sea change
Waldburg is proud of her team and stresses their role as experts. At the same time, the fact that they work with local teams on global investments in North America and Asia is the key to success, she says. In addition to her work with Union Investment Real Estate GmbH, she is also active in many industry institutions. She is a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), sits on the Supervisory Board of the European International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) and is also a mentor with the ICSC. In addition, Waldburg has held a number of university teaching posts in the past. She is happy to explain what makes her department so successful: “The decisive factor is the way we all work together here and get intensively involved with our business partners and markets.”
The massive changes affecting the retail trade in Europe are proving to be a challenge not just for retailers but also for property investors such as Union Investment. Waldburg cites digitalisation and e-commerce, demographic change and advancing urbanisation as some of the parameters defining the sea change which the retail sector is experiencing. She puts in a nutshell what many market players have not yet realised: “We are on the threshold of a new era in the retail business.” And she does not believe in classifying changes as a threat to the retail business. “Online retailing offers opportunities for conventional retailers and property investors too,” says Waldburg with conviction. The point of sale, she adds, is still the most important place for brand contact; in fact it is the decisive one.
She believes that product and brand experiences will continue to take place in shops. The important consideration for property investors, she stresses, is that the sustainability of rents depends on a shop’s sales figures. “The weaknesses in the clothing retailing industry are without doubt a challenge. That is obvious from the bankruptcies of the last 24 months,” says Waldburg.
Henrike Waldburg studied architecture in Aachen and Venice, real estate economics at the EBS European Business School and international management at SGMI Management Institute in St. Gallen. She is a member of the industry associations RICS, ICSC, and IMMOEBS. She has over 17 years of international experience in the real estate business, including six years working with Arthur Andersen, later Ernst & Young. She joined Union Investment Real Estate GmbH as an investment manager in 2006 and has been Head of Investment Management Retail since 2009, responsible for global retail transactions.
Competition remains tough
The fact that the retail industry will have to offer more than just space for individual retailers in future is something which retail experts in sales and acquisitions and asset management have been thinking about for some time. Waldburg believes that retail spaces, especially large shopping centres, have to morph from “places to shop into places to be.” Food outlets will play a major role, which is why Waldburg sees attractive cafes and restaurants and digital services as “key distinguishing features.” She is convinced that multi-channel concepts and creative shop ideas will be just as important in the future as creating attractive places to be. She also believes that Union Investment as a building owner can make this happen and she intends to push for that globally. And, of course, cultural differences are also important here. “In Poland, for example,” says Waldburg, “trendy food courts are so successful because eating is a favourite pastime there 24/7. That is absolutely not the case in France, where people prefer to eat lunch and dinner at the traditional times.”
The structural challenges in the retail sector are accompanied by tough competition for attractive investments, which shows no sign of abating. “That is true for all categories of retail property,” says Waldburg. Her investment department has been observing an extreme trend in prices in retail parks, for example. One and a half years ago, we were still seeing multipliers between 14 and 16. They are now between 19 and 20. “That is an astronomical rise, which is, on the one hand, due to the general ‘wall of money’ but also to food retailers’ rumoured resilience in the face of online competitors,” says Waldburg. For Union Investment, which has the right know-how, developing projects in existing retail properties is still a worthwhile investment.
As an example, Waldburg cites the €70 million investment in Les Grands Prés shopping centre in Mons, Belgium. It has been part of the retail property portfolio since 2004 and a further 8,700 square metres were added in 2012. Henrike Waldburg makes sure she keeps abreast of any interesting opportunities arising on the investment horizon. “We speak regularly to our business partners who might potentially be selling or developing projects. And, of course, we try to get involved in these processes as soon as possible.”
The 44-year-old investment manager believes things will continue to be exciting at Union Investment because the retail property portfolio is set to grow still further and she and her team constantly have feelers out for any possible new countries. So the property expert’s travel schedule does not look like it is about to shrink any time soon.
And because Henrike Waldburg travels so much for her job, she prefers to spend her free time at home in Hamburg with her husband and daughter. But she has also remained loyal to her home region Westphalia, still supporting the local football team, Borussia Dortmund. Being actively involved in sporting activities in her free time is also something she enjoys. “I run extensively. That is something I can combine easily with business trips.”